Thursday, 16 August 2007
Matters of Public Importance
I have received letters from the honourable member for Hinkler and the honourable member for Barton proposing that definite matters of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion today. As required by standing order 46(d) I have selected the matter which, in my opinion, is the most urgent and important—that is, that proposed by the honourable member for Hinkler, namely:
The urgent need for action to allow citizens to express their views in respect of forced local government amalgamations.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Local government is the most fundamental unit of democracy in this country. It has a longstanding tradition dating back to the culture and laws we inherited from the UK and have refined since. That makes it all the more bewildering that Queensland members of the opposition did not support this discussion today and gives the lie to the Leader of the Opposition’s claim that he is supporting the Prime Minister on this matter.
Having said that, local government serves all manner of communities, from far-flung shires in the heartland of Australia to cities like Brisbane, which has an operating budget greater than the state government of Tasmania—if you like, a state within the state. The recent move of the Beattie government to force the amalgamations of councils was a cynical, ham-fisted move that will impact on smaller provincial cities and rural communities right throughout the state.
Before we head into the fullness of the debate, let me make one thing perfectly clear: neither my colleagues nor I oppose amalgamations per se. If two or more cities or shires want to come together in a free expression of will by their residents, if there is consultation, a case made for and against as we have in referendums, and a poll or plebiscite following that, then I am comfortable with the decision, as are all of my colleagues.
There is an argument, of course, that some doughnut councils might be better served by joining the nearer provincial city, and there has been some evidence of that. So we are not against amalgamations per se. There are others like Crows Nest and Rosalie that want to come together. There is a fair amount of evidence that Hervey Bay and Maryborough want come together. If these things are properly subject to consultation and tested by a vote then I will support the results.
But there is a country mile between that approach and the thug-like approach where no dissent of any sort is tolerated. In fact, people in provincial cities that support amalgamation believe all local authorities are entitled to a free vote. But what do we have? We had a five-year consultative program called the triple S process, in which 118 of Queensland’s 125 regular councils were constructively participating. They were well into it. There were trying to find ways of sharing machinery pools, group buying and doing all those sorts of things.
They were not dishing it up to the government—quite the contrary: they were working with the state government to achieve the three S process. But, 18 months into it, it was suddenly abandoned. Why? I suspect it was because they proved that these councils, with a few exceptions, would be best staying as they were and that resources could be shared between adjoining councils. So what happened? It was cancelled overnight and in its place, a so-called Local Government Reform Commission, perhaps more aptly named the local government amalgamation commission, was given three months to suggest new boundaries, albeit within constrained terms of reference.
One month was allowed for submissions. This is the most fundamental unit of democracy and we have one month for submissions. We have six weeks, do we not, when the AEC looks into our boundaries? Then in the two months that remained—60-odd days or, I suppose you could say, about 48 working days—the commissioners were asked to consider 37,000 submissions. Then there were to be no public hearings and no testing of evidence. How is that? In fact, the commission’s report was presented at 10 one morning last week, and it was signed off by lunchtime the same day. What sort of scrutiny did state cabinet give the report? None.
At 4 am one day last week the world changed and 84 local authorities were abolished overnight. Only 73 continue. It is interesting—we have had the Victorian experience thrown in our teeth a few times this week, have we not? But in Victoria, infinitely smaller in area than Queensland, even the Kennett government kept 78 councils. We were left with 73, so it was an even fiercer process than the Victorian one.
What will the effect be? Take my own area of Bundaberg. We will go from 32 councillors, who are out there in the community consulting with people, down to 11. The Central Highlands, represented by my good friend the member for Maranoa, goes from 38 to eight. If you really want to see a doozy, in the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources’ area of Toowoomba we go from 69 councillors to 11. Even the Torres Strait, where people live on islands, goes from 59 councillors down to 16. In part of my own area, North Burnett goes from 41 councillors down to seven. Also you should note that some of these councillors will have greater responsibility than the state members. What sort of an imbalance does that create with the three tiers of the government when you will probably have to have mayors being paid more than the state members of parliament to justify their positions? It is an absolutely extraordinary thing. Why would the Queensland state government do this?
We will come to that. I think the member for Maranoa is probably right. The south-eastern corner is fast running out of resources and money, so if you can close down a lot of country councils and alter the payments to councils, you can keep a bit more down in that south-eastern corner. I hope I do not give any offence to my colleagues who have electorates in the south-eastern corner, but we have seen with the Traveston Dam what the Beattie government is capable of if it wants something in a particular area. Might it be to politicise local government? If you get great big area councils then it will be easier to have Labor candidates stand for council. Perhaps that might be the case.
Might it be part of a policy to further advance control-freakism and centralisation? I ask that because this same Beattie government is rolling the port authorities into each other. It rolled the Rockhampton Port Authority into the Gladstone Port Authority. It melded the Bundaberg Port Authority with that of Brisbane. And, surprise, surprise! We also have, of the district health councils, the North Burnett health council getting rolled into the Bundaberg one, and there is a similar pattern across the rest of the state. It is control-freakism, all right. It is centralisation of government, and this particular form of amalgamation is just another manifestation of it.
Might it be a thinly disguised attack on councillors who might become National or Liberal MPs? A lot of Liberal and National MPs come from local authorities—not that they ever stand as Liberals or Nationals in those local authorities; they all stand as Independents. Why do we need to have politics about who collects the garbage, where the water comes from, where the sewerage is and who mows the parks and so on? Why do we need to have politics about who builds the roads? Of course we do not need it. But if you can make the councils into bigger units and knock out a lot of the conservative types of people who generally serve on them, you can, if you like, reduce the gene pool of the conservatives. Some might say I am paranoid, but, no, I am not.
Mr Beattie has form. Was it not Mr Beattie who fairly recently brought in a rule that said that instead of standing down to contest a state election, you have to resign from your council? Of course, there would be the cost, if you lost, when the election was over and you wanted to recontest your seat. You would have to stand again or, if you did not stand, there would have to be a by-election, with all the expense. Why could you not let someone stand down? If they won, they would resign. If they did not win, they would go back on council. But, no, there could not be anything as simple as that. They get rid of them because they are probably a conservative candidate.
Mr Beattie tried it with federal members. Did you all know that? He tried to do it with federal members, but the High Court had something to say about that. What are the local reactions to this?
It was outrage on a scale that you could not imagine. Childers, in the seat that I sit in, is a beautiful town. The Prime Minister has been there; it was after that dreadful backpacker hostel fire. It is one of the most progressive shires in the state and has been abolished, I might add. Bill Trevor, the mayor, told me that a protest meeting there generally attracts 60 to 80 people. How many did it attract for this issue? There were 400. In a little town like Biggenden there were 250. There were 125 at Gin Gin. In Brisbane, we had the biggest marches since the marches about the Springboks and the Vietnam War. There were between 6,000 and 8,000 people who marched through the streets of Brisbane just a week or so ago in the lead-up to show week. Yeppoon is a lovely place. It is a holiday resort just east of Rockhampton. Just a day or two ago they had 1,500 people protest. In the seat of Flynn—a lot of which, until recently, was in my seat, so I have a great deal of affection for it—there were 200 councillors. That number will be reduced to 40. And the Labor Party ask why the people of Central Queensland are angry. There will be 160 councillors out there baying for blood, let me tell you.
It is interesting to see what various people have said. The President of the ALGA and the LGAQ, Paul Bell, said, and this was with respect to you, Prime Minister:
The response of the Prime Minister is now to have legislation which overrides the state legislation in regards to the draconian principles of Beattie’s about sacking councillors or ... having huge fines imposed on councillors, is really really a strong move we believe for ... putting democracy back into Queensland.
Take a bow, Prime Minister, from Paul Bell.
I might now slip back into Flynn for a minute and tell you what Chris Trevor said. Chris was a devotee who wanted to be part of the Beattie government and who was rolled over convincingly by Liz Cunningham. Chris Trevor, who has woken up to the fact that this is an absolute no-no in Central Queensland, was quoted in an article as saying that communities were:
... very, very angry, disappointed and saddened.
The article continued:
“As I travel through the electorate I can fully understand why,” Mr Trevor said.
“That is their number one issue and their only issue at the moment.”
That is coming from the Labor candidate. The article went on:
He feared the issue could harm his election chances.
I’d be foolish to say that it’s not going to affect my chances, certainly the indication out here in the community at the moment is that it will,” Mr Trevor said.
There is no comment, because it could work either way …
Does that mean that it could harm the Beattie government or that it could harm the opposition leader’s potential government? He went on—and wait for this:
… and I have not put enough time into it.
It has been the central issue in Queensland for the last four weeks, and the Labor candidate knows nothing about it. For God’s sake! The article went on to state that Mr Parr also refused to say whether or not he had been instructed by head office not to comment. Today’s Courier-Mail tells the story. I am sure that it was Bill Ludwig who told him not say anything.
In the moments remaining, I ask: what have we done to these good people who have served the state? We have allowed the Beattie Labor government to threaten them with fines. We have allowed them to sack councils that had the temerity to ask for a referendum. What a dreadful thing it would be to consult the public! This is an outrage of monumental grounds and I compliment the Prime Minister for the move he took today. (Time expired)
The federal parliamentary Labor Party absolutely agrees that citizens should have the opportunity to express their views on forced amalgamations. That is the very strong view of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. We have a very strong commitment to local democracy.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I understand the Leader of the Opposition supports this, but he is not in the House. He is never here.
If only those opposite supported this principle all of the time. In this House today, during question time, we saw the very selective approach of our Prime Minister to local democracy. He was too smart by half today, our Prime Minister. He was too tricky and too dishonest. Early in question time, he was in full support of ballots for council amalgamations in Queensland. Only a matter of minutes later, when asked a question about the siting of 25 nuclear power plants, where did local democracy go? Local democracy went right out of the window. Less than an hour ago the Prime Minister said to those local authorities that do not want nuclear power plants that they must understand that the decisions as to where nuclear power plants might be located in the future will not be decisions of the government; they will be decisions of commercial investors. In other words, no local planning laws are going to apply. Nuclear plants will be rammed down the throats of local communities. There is no new-found commitment here to local plebiscites. All of those members over there, such as the member for Fairfax, the member for Hinkler and the member for Longman, who face the prospect of having nuclear power plants in their electorates—
We saw the typical tricky, dishonest approach of the Howard government. They are too smart by half. They support localism when it might suit their immediate political interests but they have no commitment to the principle of localism when it comes to their deep-seated ideological prejudices. These deep-seated ideological prejudices simply demonstrate why the government are so out of touch and why I believe Queenslanders will see right through this manoeuvre.
The government can cross its fingers and hope this will have some huge political impact in Queensland, but the one thing Queenslanders know about the Howard government is that, when it comes to the key issues that go to the core of their personal security, they have a government that is extreme, out of touch and out of time, a government that wants to rip away their wages and working conditions, that is not committed to doing anything about climate change, that does not understand the importance of education and that is not coming to grips with the fundamental problems of combating terrorism. This is a government that is out of touch and out of time, a government that is only left with slick, tricky political manoeuvres. That was on display all in the space of about an hour during question time today.
Let me be very clear about the attitude of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, of our leader, Kevin Rudd, of all the Queensland Labor Party members and of the federal Labor caucus to this proposition. It is very clear. Our position is that the shire amalgamations proposed by Mr Beattie should be voluntary. This is no different to the position of the member for Hinkler. He said that he actually supports amalgamations. We think they should be voluntary. I think that that is what he assumes as well. That is a position we outlined well before the member for Hinkler ever thought of it or was told to think it.
Secondly, we have said that there are other ways to achieve efficiencies, through the common purchase of services by shires combining to purchase sewerage services or water services. That is a point that the Leader of the Opposition made abundantly clear in Queensland from the very beginning. Lastly, and most importantly, he made this point well before the Prime Minister ever thought of this manoeuvre:
... if there are proposals for a forced amalgamation, then that should be tested through the democratic process.
That is the position of the federal parliamentary Labor Party—one that the Leader of the Opposition has expressed directly to the Premier of Queensland. He is a grown-up man who can make his own decisions and take his own positions. We will take ours, we will fight for them, we will articulate them in Queensland and we will articulate them in this national parliament because we believe they are correct.
That brings us to the bill that the Prime Minister spoke about before question time. He said its purpose was to authorise the use of Commonwealth electoral rolls in local government areas where state rolls were not available and to provide for any state law that discriminates against local councils or other people involved in the plebiscites to be invalid. We agree with this. We think it will be a very good principle to put in place when this government is trying to ram those power plants down the throats of local communities. We think it will be a very good principle, but we did not get any endorsement of that from the Prime Minister in the House today. The Prime Minister has also said that he is not opposed to amalgamation, but he does not particularly like local governments. We can go through his history and see his opposition to the constitutional recognition of local governments over a very long period of time.
But, of course, that bill and this matter of public importance are not about local government at all. They are all about the short-term political interests of the Howard government, not the long-term national interests. Why did we suddenly have this matter of public importance on the last sitting day of one of the last sitting weeks in the life of this parliament? I will tell you why. It is because this government has just endured one of the worst months of its political history. In its 11-year-old long life, it has had one of its worst political months.
First of all, there were the damning attacks on the Prime Minister by his own Treasurer. They were in a biography in which the Treasurer deliberately accused the Prime Minister of failure through his reckless spending and putting upward pressure on inflation and interest rates. Then there was the revelation that the Treasurer had planned to wreck the Prime Minister’s leadership because he did not think he could win an election. Then we saw the farce of the Treasurer and the Prime Minister coming into this House pretending there was some new friendship between them. It is just a joke.
On top of that, the Prime Minister’s own pollster confirmed that most Australians think he is tricky, dishonest and out of touch. That is what Queenslanders will see in the bill that is to come before the parliament. They will certainly welcome the opportunity to vote, but I can tell you who will not be getting any credit for it. It will not be one John Howard, because they saw through him a very long time ago. The bill has appeared in that environment.
If something was so urgent, would you not have thought that if this Prime Minister were in such control, had such political command and really understood what the Australian people needed and what was required to address future challenges we might have seen some proposal today from him to address the inflationary pressures and the interest rate pressures that the RBA has repeatedly warned the government about? But there was nothing urgent from the Prime Minister in that area, despite what rising interest rates are doing to the living standards of so many Australian families. Or have we seen anything of an urgent nature from this Prime Minister about the critical question of housing affordability? Not a thing. Something like one million Australians live in housing stress. Did we have a bill rushed into the House to deal with that critical question? Did we have a bill rushed into the House dealing with nuclear proliferation issues? No. Of course, we know why, because that was revealed during question time. Did we have anything brought into the House to address the unfairness and extremeness of the government’s industrial relations laws? Of course we did not, because we have a Prime Minister who is not listening to the concerns of Australian families around the kitchen table. And, of course, we also know that Australian families have stopped listening to him. He has not been listening to them and they have certainly stopped listening to him, because he is not out there with positive proposals addressing their immediate kitchen table concerns.
He has got every stunt and every trick in the book. That is why this Prime Minister has had such a horror month and why this Prime Minister is reduced to standing in the courtyard on this last sitting day with his stunt about plebiscites in local government amalgamations. It is a stunt and nothing more. We welcome his stunt. He stood here today doing it because he is a Prime Minister who is in deep political trouble. He has about as much credibility today as a protector of democracy as he did yesterday when he proclaimed that he and the Treasurer had a wonderful, harmonious relationship. That is about as believable as the statement that the Prime Minister is a democrat. Fair dinkum! Does he think he can con people all of the time? It is just absurd. He is so far out of touch that he actually thinks this stuff works. It does not. For the Prime Minister to come into this House and say with a straight face that he had a wonderful, harmonious relationship with the Treasurer just shows how twisted and dishonest this Prime Minister has become. Nobody could contain their laughter—not even people on the front bench could contain their laughter. And, of course, the Treasurer was laughing again at the Prime Minister when he had his back to him during question time.
I will tell you why this is the case: because the government, on so many issues, fails what I call the motivation test. They do not do something because it is right; they do it because the election is 10 weeks away. They always fail the motivation test. We are in trouble on the environment: ‘We had better pretend we have an emissions trading scheme.’ We are in trouble on education: ‘We had better give ourselves an extreme makeover in the budget.’ We are in trouble on industrial relations: ‘We will invent a no-disadvantage test.’ All of these issues, including this bill and this debate today, fail the motivation test. The government have not introduced this measure because they are right; they have introduced it because there is an election 10 weeks away and they think it might in some way, somehow, save their miserable political hides. I do not think the Australian people will buy that because, when long-term governments like this fail the motivation test, the people simply stop trusting them. They know that every time they move they are not doing it for the right reasons; they are just doing it to save their miserable political hides and that is all. They are not motivated by what is right for the country; they are motivated by what might be right for the Liberal and National parties. That is why those in the government fail the motivation test and that is why at the end of the day this measure will not have the political impact that the desperados opposite think it will have for them. The Queensland people will see right through it.
The Prime Minister has been pretending to be a democrat. But consider the claim of the Prime Minister being a democrat in light of the recent changes to the Electoral Act. The government have now put through changes to the Electoral Act that could disenfranchise up to 160,000 people at the next election. Why? Because they think those people might just vote Labor because they are predominantly young people. It fails the motivation test again. Why is it that, on the eve of an election, when they have got their backs to the wall, we get this change to the Electoral Act which will have the practical effect, they think, of saving their miserable political hides. On that measure alone, they have failed the motivation test. If the Prime Minister is so in love with local government, why did he let Jeff Kennett do what he did to local government in Victoria? Once again, they fail the motivation test. And where was the Prime Minister on the critical issue of constitutional recognition of local government? There has been no action on that for over 11 years. Once again, the government fail the motivation test.
We are pleased that there will be ballots in Queensland—we welcome the outcome—because we do believe in the democratic processes. But this government should not kid itself that this shabby political manoeuvre is anything other than that or that somehow people in Queensland are going to stand up and clap because the Howard government failed the motivation test. They understand that you have failed the motivation test, they understand the political motivation of what you are on about and they will mark you accordingly. The most important thing here will be a successful outcome for those local communities. We on this side of the parliament have been arguing from the very beginning that these amalgamations should be voluntary—that there should be a process of consent. We have argued that strongly in Canberra, in Queensland and in Bundaberg, and we will keep arguing for it. (Time expired)
It is a real privilege to come into this discussion on a matter of public importance and to defend the right of Queenslanders to determine what they want to do about local government amalgamations. At the moment, Queenslanders are having a good look at the worst Queensland government in their state’s history. They are having a good look at the arrogance of the local government minister and the arrogance of Peter Beattie. The Premier of Queensland is drunk on power and he has been telling Queenslanders about what he is going to do in that state and how, if he wants to, he can rule it for 100 years. I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, this is sticking right in the guts of Queenslanders. They are being told by the Queensland government how they must live in a range of ways which only suit the Labor Party and do not reflect the aspirations and genuine concerns and fears of Queenslanders.
We see in this parliament the face of the Labor Party opposite, where every single member is a trade union member. We see opposite 70 per cent of them being former union bosses. Members of the Labor Party are defined by their union background. There is no group opposite, when you talk about Queensland, more fundamental to the motivation of power—that is, the distribution of union power in Australia. When you are talking in the Queensland context, you are talking about Bill Ludwig and the power he uses to influence this parliament and the Queensland parliament through ciphers like the member for Lilley and the member for Oxley and his deputies in this place.
So, when on the front page of the paper today I read that one of Labor’s most powerful factional bosses has rebuked party leader Kevin Rudd and ordered federal Labor candidates to back off in their confrontation with Queensland Premier Peter Beattie over council amalgamations in that state, I know what message is being given to the member for Lilley and the member for Oxley. We had a speech previously from the member for Lilley that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, but never once did he voice a strong commitment to support the electors of Queensland—to give the people of Queensland a vote on this question of local government amalgamation which they so desperately crave.
What really gets people in Queensland angry is that, at the time of the last state election, the Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, went to the polls telling Queenslanders that their opportunity in relation to local government amalgamation was with the triple S process. It was a process where there would be no forced amalgamations and there would be a kind of a corporate love-in; there would be size, shape and sustainability. They were the three Ss: size, shape and sustainability. Councillors would talk together and come up with an outcome.
But what happened after the election—after Queenslanders unfortunately had placed their trust once too often in Premier Peter Beattie? The triple S was thrown out and in came the SS—the jackbooted stormtroopers. People like Local Government Association President Mr Bell had been told that there would be a corporate coming together of the councils. The Local Government Association supported that. They said: ‘We want to be able to set the pace. We want to be able to consult with our people and produce the outcome they want.’ In places like Gatton and Laidley, they were looking at outcomes where, for example, they might have two councils that would share all council resources. This was the kind of thing that was put on the table and then, in an untimely manner, all support for it was ripped away; it got ripped out. It was taken away and replaced by the stormtroopers.
I spoke before about the one figure who controls not only the AWU and, therefore, the ALP within Queensland but also his patsies here in the federal parliament. What has happened in this latest scenario? Bill Ludwig, the fat posterior of the Labor movement in Queensland, has finally stirred, and what has been produced? The member for Lilley and the member for Oxley, with the most inane and pathetic failed defence of their own electors.
We got nothing from these characters, apart from an effort—coordinated by Mr Bill Ludwig and the AWU—to lock in union power in Queensland. We have the worst state government in Queensland, controlled or puppeteered by Mr Ludwig. He has his puppets at the state level and at the federal level, but he is not satisfied. He wants them through every local council in Queensland. What does he get in return for that? We have already heard that there is a proposal to have all council employees in the state working for a state authority, a state department. Why is that? It is so that all those people will wind up being numbers for Bill Ludwig and the AWU when it comes to convention time for the ALP. They get to control the operation of the ALP. (Quorum formed)
I thank my colleagues for their support and I return to the subject of the AWU and its control in Queensland. The AWU sees this process as an opportunity to lock in Labor and union control of local councils. Across Queensland local authorities are seeing the potential they can get by increasing the flexibility of their workforce, and that does not appeal to Bill Ludwig. Opponents are coming out of the woodwork to talk about the arrogance of the Beattie government and the fact that it is the most hated government in Queensland’s history.
Mr Ludwig is telling his members of the right faction, such as the member for Oxley and his other patsy, the member for Lilley, to pull in their heads. They are being told not to confront the government over this issue and to allow Premier Peter Beattie to go ahead and smash these councils together in any old way that he wants, and those patsies opposite will follow along with it. Sure, we hear a lot of noise from the member for Lilley about other things. But what is his position on this? Where is his determined defence of local councils, which is something that his leader has said that he will follow through with? (Time expired)
Given that the member for Blair is still here, I will start with a few comments about his contribution on the matter of public importance. Members might recall that earlier today the member for Blair started with a quote from Macbeth, who was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped’. I think he got the wrong Shakespearian experience. He should have seen Ian McKellen’s recent fantastic performance in King Lear. That play is about an old king, a king who has had a long rule, but beneath him all is not well. What we see is a situation not dissimilar to that facing the Howard government. We see the siblings on the front bench all fighting amongst themselves about who will take over and what will happen next. We see them continually briefing journalists. They are very, very unhappy. Initially the king sits above it and does not quite know what is going on. But, over time, he eventually descends into a situation which is nothing more than tragic; he is just losing it. That is probably the most appropriate Shakespearean play to use when talking about the Howard government today. Beyond that, what else can I say about the member’s contribution? We had references to fat posteriors and patsies—not a lot of it parliamentary and not a lot of it relevant. Then again, that is what we would expect at this time, in this place, in this sort of debate.
Before that, we had the contribution from the member for Hinkler, who introduced the matter of public importance. He talked about cynical and ham-fisted policies. I must admit that I was not paying attention when he said that and I was not sure who he was talking about. Apparently he was talking about the Premier of Queensland, but I thought he was talking about the Prime Minister. When we look at some of this and the movement that has occurred on this issue in recent times, that is what we have actually seen.
The member for Hinkler also said that the Labor Party’s approach to this issue is inconsistent with the approach it took to the Kennett coalition government reducing the number of councils in Victoria. His rationale for Kennett’s actions is that Victoria is infinitely smaller on a geographical level, but I had a funny thought here. Although it is obviously something that we must take into consideration, I thought this was about people, about population. I thought it was about a democratic process and not how many square kilometres councillors represent; it is about the number of people they represent. It appears that this government’s rationale for taking action to ensure democracy is based on the area represented, not the number of people, and I think that is sad.
The member for Hinkler made an interesting point about a conspiracy theory. He said that this is about reducing the number of conservative councillors and reducing the gene pool of conservatives in the coalition in Queensland. I would like members to focus on that for a second. He said that what we are going to do is reduce the gene pool of the Queensland conservatives—reduce the gene pool, or puddle, of the National Party in Queensland. I thought they had been doing that pretty well themselves. As a conspiracy theory, it appears that the gene pool has already been hit, and pretty hard. The drought in Queensland and around Australia is not only about water.
I ask members to focus for a second on the notion of John Howard as a champion of local democracy. How often have we seen that? Can anyone suggest when we have seen that? We all know—and we have seen it consistently in the way he has reacted in recent months—that there is only one poll that counts for this Prime Minister, and that is the next opinion poll. He focuses on the next opinion poll and what he must do to get himself out of the mess that he has got himself into. I suppose there is one other factor—that is, it depends on who produces the poll. We all know that if it is a poll that the PM wants to listen to—that is, a poll he will take notice of—it is best if it comes from Mark Textor. We all know that Textor gives him his lines.
I quote from an article by Sid Marris from 7 August:
Mr Howard’s latest confrontation with the States follows the revelation this week of a warning from the Liberals’ pollster Mark Textor that the Coalition was unpopular and needed to capitalise on voter discontent with State governments.
Frankly, that is what we have seen today. We had the ridiculous situation at the start of this debate, before matters were brought to order by the Deputy Speaker, of several members of the coalition getting up and trying to make a cheap political point about the fact that the Leader of the Opposition was not present during this debate. I might add, when they were speaking, neither was the Prime Minister present. Why did they make that point? For a pretty clear reason: they see this as an opportunity to try and drive a wedge, because that is what it is all about. The points of order they raised were about that, and the nature of the contributions to this debate so far by both speakers on the other side was exactly that.
But we can make some points about this issue. Labor believes that, with forced amalgamations, people want and are entitled to have their say on the matter. We do not oppose that; we have supported it. In fact, more than that, who actually said it first? That was back in May, and who was it? Was it the Prime Minister? No, it was not the Prime Minister. It was the Leader of the Opposition, who made that fact very clear.
There is another point that the coalition really have to get their head around: on one hand it claims we are controlled by the states and in a situation where we do their bidding and yet, when Kevin Rudd is clear that on occasions when he disagrees with the state government he will take action or an alternative position, we get attacked. There is nothing consistent about the coalition’s actions on these issues—nothing at all. Their only consistency is in trying to take a state issue and create a federal political impact. That is what it has all been about.
But Kevin Rudd has been clear about this. He has been clear about the fact that he does not support forced mergers of local councils. He supports a local choice and a local voice for the people of Queensland. He sees that as an important principle that should be maintained.
As I understand it, it was not until 7 August that we saw some action by the Prime Minister on this issue. It took him a long time to catch up, as it has taken him a long time to catch up on climate change and on so many other issues, particularly over the last year or two. We continually see him make mean and tricky attempts to capitalise on issues, but he is always behind the game—a man who really is not up to scratch now on the challenges we face as a nation into the future.
I will come back to the point about Victoria and what happened with amalgamations down there. The fact is that it was completely driven by the conservatives, and at that time there was not a boo out of the federal coalition. We all know what John Howard’s real attitude is to things like local government. In 1988, when Howard was Leader of the Opposition—
In 1988, when the Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, Labor put a referendum to the people to constitutionally recognise local government. John Howard, the then Leader of the Opposition, led the Liberal campaign against the constitutional amendment—he opposed it. Further, in 2006, Labor moved an amendment to a motion in the parliament to recognise local government in the Constitution. The Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads, the member for Robertson, said he opposed it, and it was opposed.
Labor’s position with respect to local government has been clear: we see it as an important part of the democratic system. We have sought to have it enshrined in the Constitution and given its proper place. On this occasion we are very clear about the fact that more can be done to ensure the people of Queensland have a say.
Let us not forget what is driving this from the coalition’s point of view. It is about politics; it is about trying to bash the states; it is about trying to pick up on issues which, historically, they have been against. As I mentioned earlier, when I talked about the references to Shakespeare made by the member for Blair, this is more about King Lear than Macbeth. It is more about a leader whose time has passed, who needs to move on and who is in a situation where the Australian people will move him on in the very near future. The attempt to use this issue as a wedge will fail. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
What a pathetic performance from the other side of the House. Here they are, coming into this House trying to say that they support democracy and yet, when this matter of public importance was put up this afternoon, not one person on the other side stood in support. This is the day when we restore democracy in Queensland. What we have seen in Queensland under the arrogant Labor government led by Peter Beattie is a government prepared to do anything and bring in draconian legislation which strips away people’s rights. It strips away freedom of speech. (Quorum formed) I thank my colleagues for coming in and defending the right of people to speak out. Defending freedom of speech in this country is a fundamental principle of any democracy. What we have seen from the Labor Party is—
that, during debate on one of the most important pieces of legislation to defend democracy in this country, they are prepared to call a quorum, during this MPI. What a disgraceful performance. It says a great deal about the Labor Party’s hypocrisy when it comes to supporting this federal coalition government’s defence of democracy and the right to free speech in this country. Let us ask ourselves, in the limited time I have: who are the little people who are going to be hurt by these forced amalgamations in Queensland? These are the small people, the families, the working families, the 45,000 workers who work for local governments in Queensland. All of their jobs are at risk with these forced amalgamations, without consultation with the people and without consultation with the councillors who were elected by those working people to represent their views and to look after their communities. They are the people who are going to lose their jobs, but does the Labor Party worry about that? Does Kevin Rudd worry about that?
Does the Leader of the Opposition worry about that? No. Who is going to pay the compensation for the devaluation of a family’s home in western Queensland? Who is going to pay the compensation for the loss of a business asset in a small country town that loses its local council? (Time expired)
Everyone in this place should be honest about the reason we are here today in the federal parliament, where the Howard government in the end will just ram through any legislation it likes, including this legislation, not because it believes in anything but because of the electoral cycle. This is all to do with an election coming up soon. This is all about a Prime Minister in electoral trouble and what he sees as a political opportunity. Never in the 30 years that this Prime Minister has been in parliament has he done anything like this—supported democracy or championed any cause—unless there was a personal political opportunity for him. It has always been about him and nothing else. It is not because the Prime Minister has suddenly today decided that he wants to support or believe in democracy or to give people a say on anything at all. In fact, we saw in this place today government members doing everything they could to interject and disrupt the contributions by members on this side. In the end it is all about the political opportunity of the Prime Minister in trying to regain some traction in my home state of Queensland.
While many Queenslanders have given a lot of support to this coalition government —in fact, 22 seats at the last election versus only six for Labor—not much has been returned to them. I am sure many of the people who live in those 22 seats are starting to add that up. For all the support they have given this government, very little support has been returned. It certainly has not been returned in government funding for key programs in regional areas, for road funding or for anything else that would say, ‘We appreciate your support and vote.’ They will take the votes but they give nothing back.
On this side of the House Labor believe in democracy and giving people a say. That is why we will be supporting this bill. Even though we understand the intent, the reasoning and the spirit behind it, we will be supporting this bill because people ought to have a say. They ought to have a say in a whole range of areas. I would like to see that consistently done by the other side, by the government, and it does not do it. This is the government that is completely focused on itself, its own future and saving its own political hide. Not for one minute is it focused on the future of this nation.
Mind you, all the government members in the discussion have said they support the forced amalgamations. That is the great irony in this debate. They come in here passing legislation to purport to do something, but when it comes to the end they say: ‘We do support amalgamations. We just think we ought to take a political opportunity at this time.’ After 11½ very long years this is the record of this government. They have ripped billions of dollars out of our education system. They tore up the Commonwealth dental health care program. They gave us balaclavas and dogs as the new method of control. They allowed $300 million from Australia to go into the hands of Saddam Hussein. They have taken away people’s rights in the workplace. They have spent the greatest amount ever spent in Australian political history on advertising. They spent more than Coca-Cola and McDonald’s put together.
But when it comes to democracy, where were John Howard and this government when the Victorian Premier at the time, Jeff Kennett, decided to sack all of Victoria’s councils? He was silent. Not a word came from the Prime Minister. Where was he when Joh was setting up the gerrymanders to keep himself in power in Queensland? Nowhere to be seen. Where was John Howard on democracy when people wanted a say on the Iraq war—a real, big issue for this country and for the whole world? Where were this government and John Howard then? Nowhere to be seen. They were very quiet. Where was John Howard when the Liberal Party moved a motion in Queensland to stop the go-ahead of the Wolffdene Dam? They said that dam would go ahead over their dead bodies.
The reality is that the government is out of touch. If you want to talk about real democracy, why has this government just passed laws to shut down the electoral roll to legally prevent people from voting? It has ensured that hundreds of thousands of young people will not get an opportunity to vote in 2007. Every election year there is a five-day window of grace when the writs are called, when an election is called, which gives a lot of young people and people moving around the opportunity to enrol for the vote. That is the record. That is reality. That is what this government does. It does everything in its power to keep itself in power but at every opportunity takes away people’s right to democracy. (Time expired)